Avera Medical Minute: Liver Transplant Close to Home

It's a second chance at life. Receiving a liver transplant has brought a Pipestone woman from having just a few days to live to planning her future.

Seeing Deb Smith sitting at her kitchen table, visiting with the family is a complete turnaround, compared to a short time ago before her liver transplant in January 2018.

"I had gotten very sick, ...I didn't eat, I couldn't do anything. All I did was sleep all the time," said Smith.

An autoimmune disease affected her liver for years. Experimental drugs did not work. A liver transplant was the next step and that's when the Avera transplant team, including Dr. Jeffery Steers, joined the fight.
She "eventually developed cirrhosis and liver failure and as many patients do unfortunately she developed hepatobiliary cancer, which is cancer that starts in the liver in patients with chronic liver disease," Said Steers.

Although alcohol may come to mind when you hear cirrhosis of the liver, Dr. Steers says it can be from many different factors, including a fatty liver, diabetes, a viral infection, alcohol or a combination of those factors.

A live donor is risky, so the donor list comes from those who have signed to become an organ donor at the time of death. Matching a donor and a liver is organized by regions, in this area, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota arrange for donors and recipients. Avera Health is the only location in South Dakota that can perform a liver transplant.

"Patients in some parts of the country could still be working full time and have very little symptoms of liver disease and get a transplant, whereas our patients often times have to be in ICU on life support to be offered a liver, so it varies dramatically from one part of the country to another," Steers added.

Deb was on the transplant list for four months and was gravely ill.

"I was very fortunate to receive it in that time because I was so sick to that point that I would not have made it any longer," commented Smith.

A match for the liver transplant was found, and Deb had a second chance at life. She doesn't know much about the person who donated the liver but hopes to meet the family one day and thank them for the gift of life.

"I don't remember the first few weeks afterwards, but one thing I did remember was my transplant team coming in every day, always smiling, always positive, and they were always telling me the good and the bad because they promised to always tell me the truth and they did," Smith gratefully added.

Having the transplant close to home meant that family could be close enough to visit, and that was crucial to her recovery and follow up appointments. Blood tests are done at the Avera Pipestone County Medical Center, and if she needs more care, Avera Health in Sioux Falls is just a short drive away.

"It means everything to be this close," Smith said.

Dr. Steers says It's a balance of donors versus those who need a liver and he could tell more patients their wait is over if more people would check the organ donor box on their driver's license.